Kathryne S. Hatch, Psy.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Play therapy is often a mystery to people. Parents bring their young child to see a therapist, and have the expectation that the child and therapist will talk through problems as an adult would. Therapy is viewed as an opportunity for the therapist to finally get through to the child so they stop misbehaving or so they can learn to act more appropriately. So often, hearing the word “play” becomes a turn off to parents. They aren’t paying for their child to simply play with the therapist! Yet, there is a deep misunderstanding as to what play therapy is and how it is undoubtedly helpful. It is my hope to demystify the concept of play therapy and clarify the benefits.
Myth: Play during therapy is not necessary – children should talk through their problems.
Fact: Young children often express themselves behaviorally rather than verbally. Therefore, therapy looks different when children and adults are compared.
Children do not have the developed verbal skills that most adults have, and cannot effectively express their difficulties through verbal communication. Confining children to expressing themselves verbally constricts their capacity for self-expression and limits their ability to process and work through problems. Play in children is comparable to verbal expression in adults. Therefore, withholding play from them during the therapy hour is like trying to help an adult to work through their difficulties but not allowing them to speak or express themselves through their primary modality of expression.
Myth: Play therapy won’t really be help my child learn to deal with their problems.
Fact: Play therapy provides an indefinite amount of opportunities for children to work on themselves.
Children utilize play for so many reasons. As adults, we tend to see children playing and see it as nothing more than that. Our understanding of this is limited. Indeed, children engage in play in order to communicate, work through problems, express themselves, describe experiences, and process difficulties. Furthermore, playing out these experiences helps them to bring their difficulties out into the open, face them, and either control them or let them go. When the child realizes they have the power within themselves to become more psychologically mature, they become more grounded in their sense of self. Play therapy helps the child’s entire personhood grow and mature. This is a process. Just as adults cannot swiftly change, children too must experience a process of transformation that occurs at their own pace.
Myth: Play therapy is no different than how I play with my child.
Fact: It takes an expert trained in therapy with children to fully understand and to be able to facilitate a therapeutic play experience.
As parents, it is difficult not to evaluate, judge, teach, and guide a child’s behaviors. Play therapists have extensive experience and training in creating an environment with conditions most favorable for growth. It is difficult for parents not to shut down and limit expressions of tension, frustration, insecurity, aggression, fear, and confusion. Therapists are able to create a space where the child, and no one else, is the most important person. Being able to be their true self, the child does not have to compete with other forces such as parents, peers, and teachers’ expectations. Only then, when the child experiences this secure environment conducive for self-direction, can the child exercise power within themselves for growth.
Myth: Play therapy won’t help my child learn new skills or teach them how to behave.
Fact: Play therapy allows for optimum growth and learning.
Children are taught everyday by parents, teachers, mentors, etc. Generally when they come to therapy, it is because the everyday teachings they receive are not helping them grow to their fullest capacity. Play therapy allows the child to be themselves as opposed to being told how to be and without pressure to change. It helps the child recognize and clarify expressed emotions by a reflection of what they have said or did. It offers the opportunity for the child to know themselves deeply and independently, develop a course openly, and form more satisfactory strategies for living. It is true that play therapy does not simply help a child with symptoms, but also allows for growth within the person as a whole.
In conclusion, play therapy is a collaborative endeavor between the therapist and the child. The process of therapy includes promoting self-awareness and change by creating a safe environment where the child is able to be vulnerable. In this way, the child is able to get to the source of their difficulties and gain empowerment so they can change their methods for responding and coping. This is achieved through experiencing the core ingredients of therapy (empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard), and is enhanced with a strong therapeutic relationship and other various techniques. In addition, parents learn to engage with their child in a manner that continues to empower the child and facilitate learning and growth through thoughtful communication and respect. This helps to promote an increased sense of well-being among the family unit as a whole.